Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Individual Use of the Head (6): Happi


It's somewhat difficult for me to sort out the contribution that Saundarananda has made in my understanding of what the Buddha taught from the contributions made by your commentary and my reading of Dogen (not to mention other reading, events, and influences), especially since I began reading Dogen and this blog within a couple of months of each other. I think they complemented each other to keep me on my toes questioning, rather than accepting, my understanding of other things I was learning. One uniqueness of Saundarananda is that as an epic poem it attempts to teach at least in part by example rather than by concept. The examples that come most readily to mind relate to the concepts of asceticism, holding views, striving (or end-gaining), compassion and skillful means, as well as how these concepts are inter-related.

You recently asked me to say something about how I, as a woman and a scientist, responded to the striver's tirade against women. My short answer at the time was "that it seemed only to reflect on his own inability to work through for himself what is probably the most difficult subject in the history of the human race and, I think it's safe to say, continues to be so to this day."

For a couple of reasons I've decided to respond at greater length:

(1) I realized that my answer "it seemed only to reflect on his own inability to work through for himself" is basically the same answer I've been giving most of my life as I encounter difficulties in my interactions with people in order to keep myself from taking things too personally (or at least drop off my defensive responses more readily). Although the answer has truth in it and thus is frequently taught in Western Buddhism and its derivatives and spin-offs, for me I think I learned it sometime in my teens. And to be honest, that answer, in retrospect, typically hasn't worked out that well for me. In addition, because I typically have not been outspoken I also haven't done much in the way of correcting what I see as flaws in the attitudes of either the scientific community or society in general -- though it should be said I have no wish for one of my major roles in life to be a crusader.

(2) When you asked me to respond as a woman and a scientist to the striver's tirade against women, I was initially offended because I thought it was rude and insensitive. I read your blog because I am interested in the Buddha-Dharma -- it shouldn't matter whether I am a woman (or a scientist for that matter). In fact I think this has been a source of some the friction in our exchanges.

Whether your request reflects a progressive attitude or a regressive one I don't know. Using the mirror principle and examining the reasons for my initially offended response, I decided to use this opportunity to treat the request progressively. Here's why: In science, the large majority of women have to bury the fact that they are women to succeed beyond their attainment of PhD (or whatever degree). I could go on about this in greater length but I think making the point is probably enough here. The fact is I am a student of the Buddha-Dharma, a scientist, ... and a woman.

My answer:

At the time you presented and discussed the canto, I didn't have a strong reaction to the striver's tirade against women. The striver's attitude seemed so absurd that I dismissed it thinking he must have a horrible experience in his history to warrant such a tirade. And yes, it identified that he had some work to do study self. Not too long ago though, I happened to encounter some graffiti in a John that read "Boys Suck!" Even though I cannot ever remember having that thought before, on that particular day I could relate because my actions on that day had been interpreted as coming from me as a woman rather than me as a scientist, and used in a way that I consider abuse. (I will say that I recognize that my own attempts to retain a good sense of humor and to be compassionate and make allowances for people gives not only those people but others behaving out of ignorance permission to continue abusive behavior.)

In short, I can find something in me that, rather than responding to the striver's tirade against women with a tirade about how stupid he was, can relate and even see the potential causes and conditions that could give rise to such a tirade. That's an interesting surprise to me. Dogen says to 'study the self is to forget the self'. Is that because when we study ourselves long enough and hard enough, we can find the capacity for, if not the actual existence of, every possible human role and/or response? Does studying the self eventually teach us what real compassion is in order to allow us to deal with those who treat us badly out of their own ignorance? What would that compassion actually look like? I think it would differ in different circumstances and vary depending on the person. It is something that's not always easy to identify. Dogen, I think, would say to just keep practicing and the appropriate response arises naturally.

What I was originally going to try to write was a redux of modern equivalents to some of the situations and characters in Saundarananda. A few that come readily to mind:

1. What were Nanda, the Buddha and/or Aśvaghoṣa thinking having Nanda leave Sundarī without informing her at least by sending a messenger?
2. What would have happened if Nanda could have gone back and asked Sundarī if she wanted to accompany him -- as would be the case in the present day. I can imagine all sorts of scenarios coming out of that that might have been equally skillful means and would have resolved Nanda's attachment to Sundarī one way or another. I guess it would have depended on what kind of woman Sundarī was.
3. The modern day equivalent to the Buddha's skillful means would be something like a brother taking his recently separated brother to a topless bar or something. Is that actually helpful in the majority of cases?

I don't have an answer to how to resolve the difficulties in interactions between the sexes. It's not enough to bury gender as is commonly done in the sciences. I could give you a number of reasons why that approach is a failure as well. Although it seems ludicrous maybe everyone needs to wear tags to identify what role we are speaking or acting from at any particular moment. I think everyone has to continue working at it.

I think a more complete redux of Saundarananda might be fun. As I mentioned, I plan on continuing with the cantos that I missed and then review the cantos without the commentary, but exactly when I'd get to it I don't know. At the moment I still have a substantial amount to read in the Shobogenzo and I have to admit I give the Shobogenzo priority over Saundarananda. The logic behind the priority relates to another difference I perceive between the Shobogenzo and Saundarananda, though not having completely read either. The difference relates to the fact that the Shobogenzo, which translates to The True Dharma Eye Treasury, gives Dogen's best advice on how to see with and use our Dharma eye in our practice. I'm not yet convinced that Saundarananda accomplishes that as well though I have a few cantos yet to read through. Also as far as the Buddha-Dharma is concerned and Zen in particular, Dogen appears to have one of the most enlightened attitudes towards women I've encountered to date.

As always thanks for your efforts Mike -- both in this translation and your daily digging away at your own good self (and others) for the cause of the Buddha-Dharma.

Princess Leia

P.S. I have to admit that on the occasions I've seen the movie(s) I haven't gotten into the Princess Leia character that much. She seems like a snooty know-it-all with a goodly dose of airhead. These days, partially due to to your commentary and dissecting of your own self, I have a better sense of why her character grated. At least she wasn't too bad with a gun.

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